In my previous blog post I put the nutrition community on the spot by asking whether they are at fault for the increased prevalence of obesity in the United States. So many nutrition professionals are going on a “wild goose chase” trying to track down the singular “reason” why we are gaining weight. Clearly, there are hundreds of factors that contribute to weight gain. However, if we attempt to manage each and every one of those factors we will fail and will continue to fail provided we follow this complicated plan. Regardless of what you personally believe about nutrition, overweight and obesity still boil down to the fact that we are eating too much and moving far too little. Now, I know that many people believe this statement is a fallacy or at the very least an oversimplification, but the data to support this statement do not lie.
We are, on average, consuming 400 more calories per day today than we were consuming in the 1970’s (Figure 1). We are also less physically active, as the need to move has been engineered out of our environments (think remote controls, drive thru’s, electric can openers, riding lawn mowers, escalators, moving walkways, etc.). On average, the number of calories required during our workday today is 100 less than what was required in the 1960’s and 70’s (Figure 2). Now, I realize this is only one measure of physical activity and is a bit of an oversimplification on my part, but between eating 400 calories more and moving 100 calories less during one’s workday, one can see how we have put ourselves into a position to gain weight. You don’t have to “search” for a plausible explanation of obesity when you’re running a daily surplus of 500 calories/day (calories in > calories out).
No one wants to accept the simple explanation of “calories in/calories out” because if it’s really that simple then we begin to feel like it’s our fault for being overweight. And to some degree it is our fault. However, with that being said, I have heard some of the most well known obesity experts on planet suggest that despite our energy dense food environments and work/life imbalances it is actually quite impressive that ~25% of our population remains stubbornly lean.
With so many food options, so much misinformation, and so many work/life demands it is very challenging to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Despite the obstacles to healthy living that we must circumvent in everyday life, it is more than possible to eat healthy. To help you get started/improve your nutritional outlook, here are five things (not 50) that you can start doing on a daily basis to improve your health. There are far too many nutrition rules out there, yet in my opinion there are five “primary” rules you can follow to improve your nutrition and your health.
1. Don’t Believe any Nutrition, Health, or Wellness Information in the Media. Companies pounce upon nutrition misinformation to convince you, the consumer, that their product is something you need to be healthy. The purpose of a company is to make money, PERIOD. Do they really want to help you? Yes, as long as they can profit from it. Companies are not charities, they are not Mother Theresa, and they are definitely not your friends. Companies don’t necessarily create the confusion over nutrition but they definitely cater to it and profit from it. For example: Fill in these blanks. Eating Honey Nut Cheerios can help lower (blank) and reduce the risk of (blank) disease (answers: cholesterol and heart).
If you read the fine print you can see that General Mill’s Honey Nut Cheerios provides 0.75 grams of soluble fiber per serving. 3.00 grams of soluble fiber along with a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, MAY reduce the risk of heart disease. If all of these conditions are met, eating Honey Nut Cheerios MAY help you out in the long run. There are hundreds and probably thousands of foods higher in soluble fiber than Honey Nut Cheerios, yet General Mills has us all convinced that we should eat Honey Nut Cheerios to support our heart health. I really wish that instead of claiming to be heart healthy due to its soluble fiber content, Honey Nut Cheerios slogan would be “Hey, we’re a healthy alternative to eating bacon!”.
If you cannot trust the media to provide you with nutrition information, where should you/can you get scientifically sound nutrition information? There are a variety of sources for you to obtain trusted nutrition information such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, ChooseMyPlate, the American College of Sports Medicine, Harvard Health, the Anschutz Health & Wellness Center, EBNC, and Cornerstone Training & Nutrition, among others.
2. Increase your Physical Activity. What does physical activity have to with healthy eating? EVERTHING! You cannot discuss healthy eating without also discussing physical activity. The media loves to chastise physical activity by making claims such as 1) increasing physical activity does not burn enough calories to contribute to weight loss and that 2) physical activity causes you to be hungry and this hunger will lead you eat more calories than you burned in your workout. Although these two claims are true in some cases these are more of the exception than the norm.
The importance of increasing your daily physical activity is more than just about the number of calories you burn, it’s about changing your mindset! Sure, getting in a 30-60 minute workout on all or most days of the week probably will not burn a crazy amount of calories and you can easily outeat your workout. However, if you are making an effort to be more physically active, this effort is bound to spill over into other facets of your life. Parking further away from the store, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, holding walking meetings with your employees rather than sitting meetings, getting up from your desk for 5-10 minutes once an hour, commuting to work by bike once/wk, mowing your lawn with a push mower rather than a rider, participating in adult recreational leagues, and playing physically active games with your kids are all examples of mindset. You wouldn’t do as many of these things if you weren’t in the physical activity mindset! It’s not just about the calories you burn in the gym, it’s about the total number of calories you burn in the gym AND in your day-to-day life. When physical activity improves, nutrition choices also tend to improve at the same time.
To keep your attention span and prevent you from having to read a very long article, I will finish talking about the remaining 3 Keys to Healthy Eating in my next post. Until then, start thinking about how you can incorporate my first two tips into your own healthy living habits.
Todd M. Weber PhD, MS, RD
Figure 1: United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service; Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System; Loss-Adjusted Food Availability; Calories http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-(per-capita)-data-system.aspx#.U_OELEtb4X4
Figure 2: Church TS, Thomas DM, Tudor-Locke C, et al. Trends over 5 decades in U.S. occupation-related physical activity and their associations with obesity. PLoS One. 2011;6(5):e19657.